‘Dear Sugar’ ushers in a new era of podcasts at WBUR
There’s no shortage of advice being dispensed on the Web, from WebMD’s guidance on how to deal with a stuffed nose to fashionistas offering tips on how to accessorize. But one advice outlet has inspired a particular passion among the people who read it: “Dear Sugar,” the fiery, passionate, wisdom-filled column that ran on the literary website The Rumpus through 2012.
“Dear Sugar Radio,” a WBUR-produced podcast that launched Monday, brings back the much-beloved advice column — with a twist: Two Sugars are on board, and they’ll be dispensing their wisdom while in conversation.
“Sugar,” which launched in 2008, was actually written by a character at first, as initial writer and Boston Globe contributor Steve Almond explained on the podcast’s debut episode: “I was writing as somebody named Sugar, and Sugar in my mind and my imagination was a woman of a certain age, probably in her late 30s or 40s, and who was wise and irreverent and no bull. And that worked kind of badly, because it was fake.”
But a writer named Cheryl Strayed got in touch when Almond was planning on winding down his tenure of giving advice, and a miraculous coincidence occurred: “It was from the very person that I had been thinking was probably Sugar,” Almond said.
Once Strayed took the column over, writing lengthy, eloquent pieces that wound through her own life as they grappled with the issues of others, the column’s aesthetic of “radical empathy” gained a huge following, occasioned a spike in the number of Web-based advice havens, and even inspired merchandise emblazoned with some of Strayed’s more memorable bon mots. Strayed stopped writing “Sugar” in 2012, when she became involved with the adaptation of “Wild,” her memoir about walking 1,100 miles of trail, into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. (“Wild” opened in Boston last Friday.) But its allure did not fade.
“I left the ‘Dear Sugar’ column in a way that always felt like I was going on hiatus instead of quitting,” Strayed said on the phone from her home in Portland, Ore. “I was writing the column and then ‘Wild’ came out, and it became so all-consuming that I didn’t have time to write ‘Dear Sugar.’ I couldn’t keep doing it, and yet there was this sense that I wasn’t done with it.”
Almond, meanwhile, moved on from “Sugar” when Strayed took over, but he’s still giving advice — his column “Heavy Meddle” runs on WBUR’s opinion site Cognoscenti. “Dear Sugar” was born from Almond’s relationship with WBUR and the station’s innovation incubator the iLab, which is now starting to produce original podcasts. Podcasts are, essentially, a way that episodic audio programming is syndicated online (its name comes from the iPod): When a listener subscribes to a podcast, new episodes are downloaded automatically; the setup isn’t unlike setting a show on a DVR.
The podcast format has bubbled under public radio for a while; listeners to WBUR and other public radio outlets who have missed shows’ original airings can catch up with podcasted versions of the programs. Stations like WNYC in New York have experimented with such shows as the science-focused “Radiolab” and the sidelong glance at economics “Freakonomics Radio.” But the success of “Serial,” an offshoot of the much-beloved WBEZ storytelling program “This American Life,” has helped bring public radio-produced podcasting more fully into the spotlight. So, too, have the numbers: In a report issued earlier this year, Edison Research estimated that 30 percent of online audio listeners had listened to a podcast in 2014, with about 39 million people tuning into one over the last month.
WBUR is one of public radio’s gold-standard stations, producing such nationally syndicated shows as the news and conversation hour “Here & Now” and the wide-ranging discussion program “On Point.” Getting into podcast production, according to WBUR general manager Charles Kravetz, is in part about anticipating the listening habits of public radio’s next generation of listeners, who have an affinity for the deep-dive storytelling style associated with stations like WBUR even though they aren’t necessarily tuning in to broadcast signals.
“Public radio, miraculously, is not yet in disruption,” said Kravetz. “But the disruption is coming, and, frankly, making a podcast is an act of disruption unto itself. We know that. That’s why we are investing in [producing podcasts] — we need to reach an audience that [includes] our traditional terrestrial platform, as well as my two daughters, who are in their 20s and live in New York and don’t own a radio.”
Enter podcasts, which live online and have lots of potential, from flexibility of format to ability to ricochet around the Web.
“We shifted a lot of our attention recently toward podcasting and program incubation,” said Kravetz. “[‘Dear Sugar Radio’] is the first project we’re launching, although there are a whole bunch of cool ones in the hopper. [‘Sugar’] started with Steve Almond, who we love, and who we think is incredibly talented. We were looking for the right vehicle for him; we had a lot of fun with it, actually.”
The sense of fun is apparent on the podcast’s pilot episode, where Almond and Strayed go through a couple of letters, chat with “Rumpus” founder Stephen Elliott, and try to get in touch with their spouses for extra wisdom.
“It’s magic,” says WBUR program manager Iris Adler. “It has all the ingredients: It’s smart, it’s compelling, it’s very good storytelling, the two hosts are both very attractive personalities and they have a voice, and they have a wonderful interaction and connection. It’s a lovely thing, hearing them bounce off each other.”
Podcasts also allow for playfulness with format, notes Adler, which only adds to the potential for creativity. Constraints like program length, which are crucial to a show being able to fit into a station’s broadcast day, aren’t as much of a problem; the schedule, too, can be a bit looser.
“We’re learning as we go,” said Strayed. “We just recorded a couple of episodes, and we’re going to see as we go what works best for us and the listeners.”
But the commitment to quality is still there. “We wanted to make sure that we were producing podcasts, but podcasts that met the high standards of WBUR’s journalism,” said Adler. “We want to make sure that our podcasts are produced beautifully. We want to be sure the content is smart, sophisticated, and compelling.”
The premiere episode of “Dear Sugar” is online now, and new episodes will begin airing regularly once the calendar flips to 2015. In the meantime, WBUR will continue to pilot new podcasts — Adler wouldn’t give specifics on other shows in the works, but noted that the mandate for potential topics is fairly broad. “Maybe one day we’ll do a cooking podcast; maybe we’ll do sports content,” she said.
“Public radio, for tens of millions of people, has transferred from an alternative news and information source to a primary one,” said Kravetz. “We have a chance to learn from the disruptions and make sure that public radio thrives in the digital age.”